Advent #4: Peace

It is Christmas time,  and as I sit to write this my house is still and quiet. My heart is filled with gratitude over the significance and beauty of this day that we celebrate. My gratitude to God for coming to us overwhelms me. Where would we be without the gift of God in the flesh?

Each year, I ask for fresh revelation. I don’t ever want to be so familiar with scripture that I miss something new God wants to show me. There are always new things to notice, to ponder, to wrestle with, to be transformed by. Sometimes things I haven’t seen before rock my world and lead me to dig in to scripture for months. It is always fresh because the Holy Spirit makes it so. Pastor John’s sermon on Sunday gave me some things to ponder.

The Peace candle is also called the Candle of the Angels–the angels who announced that God’s peace had arrived on earth in the form of a newborn baby. His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough.

The words of the first angel to appear read like this:

And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the City of David a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:8-14

In their greeting, Luke used the Hebrew word “Savior” the Greek word “Christ” and the blended word “Lord” which was understood by the Hebrew people as Adonai, their name for God, and the Roman world was quite familiar with the significance of the word Lord. Right there, in the declaration of the angels is the first public announcement that God is here on the earth, that He is here for everyone, and that His peace is available. Those on whom His favor rests are those who recognize Him and step into life under His Lordship. What those on whom HIs favor rests really means is those on whom His kindly intent rests, His kindness–the very thing that leads us to repent (Rom. 2:4)–available to all people everywhere.

The shepherds are the ones who receive this message. The shepherds whose very profession causes them to be unclean. They are at the bottom of the religious hierarchy, unable to enter the temple themselves. They are outcasts, “less thans” — and, as often happens with those deemed “other” or “outsiders”, they have been stereotyped. They were stereotyped as dishonest people, so much so that they were not allowed to testify in court. Their testimony was always considered invalid. Yet, these very people, are the ones God chose to confirm that the angel’s message was true.

I can’t help but make the connection that another stereotyped, less than, people group during this time period whose testimony  would be considered invalid were women. Yet, who did Jesus honor by giving them the awesome ministry of telling the disciples that He was alive? (Mt. 28:7-10)

I think there is much for us to ponder in God’s deliberate choices here. We must always be extremely careful with stereotypes. Those considered other, less than, and marginalized may be the very people that God is using to show us more of Himself and His Kingdom’s ways.  In His Kingdom the last are the first, the least are the greatest, the humble are the lifted up, and His ministry of making things right–peace for all humankind–belongs to all of us who call Him Lord. We minister to Him when we love the hungry, the imprisoned, the poor, the naked, not as less than, but as Christ Himself. (Mt. 25). And I know from personal experience, He has much to teach us through the marginalized.

So our first unlikely messengers, the shepherds,  after they see Jesus, leave rejoicing and go tell everyone. Our second unlikely messengers, who actually declare Jesus as King, are the Magi.

Matthew 2:1-2 tells us all the detail we get about them in this story: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

There are lots of assumptions made about the Magi–we most always see them in a group of three riding on camels, and they show up at the manger. Scripture doesn’t tell us that there were three, or what their names are, or that they rode on camels. What we do know is they came a long distance, they knew, when they saw his star, that the King of the Jews had been born, and they came to worship him.

First important thing to note–these are not Jewish men. The Magi are Gentiles, considered pagans. What is God doing by including these outsiders? Not only are they Gentiles–they are mystics.

We don’t know much about these particular Magi, but this is not the first time Magi appear in scripture. Magi were members of many ancient cultures–the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes, and the Persians. They were interpreters of dreams, astrologers and astronomers, priests and teachers/anointers of kings.  In the Old Testament book of Daniel, in the account of King Belshazzar’s encounter with the writing on the wall, we learn that Daniel, who had been taken to Babylon during the Israeli exile, became chief Magi under King Nebuchadnezzar:

The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale!  There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.  He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.” Daniel 5:7-12.

When Daniel was brought in, he made it very clear that he served the Most High God, and Daniel said to the king that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes. (v. 21)

Daniel was a Magi. Daniel was an undeterred, courageous, uncompromising lover and follower of the Most High God. Daniel counseled three kings in Babylon. He had great influence. Is it possible that the Magi that came to worship Jesus knew that the King of the Jews would be born because Daniel was a faithful witness to God’s promises and prophecies 600 years before?

Matthew continues, in his account to let us know that the Magi went to King Herod to find out where the King of the Jews was to be born. Herod called in his priests and teachers of the law to find out, and Herod was greatly disturbed. Once the Magi learned that the prophecy spoke of Bethlehem, that’s where they went. The star led them to  the right house. They were not the least bit concerned that Jesus wasn’t in a palace. They presented him with gifts, and they worshiped him. They were declaring that Jesus is King.

God’s ways are not our ways. The religious community of Jesus’ day rejected him as King. He was a threat to their traditional way of doing things, and a threat to their power. The political community of the day certainly had no tolerance for a competing Kingdom. But God’s plans and ways will not be thwarted by our fallen world’s systems. He chooses foreigners, outsiders, oppressed people, mystics, and anyone else He cares to use, to draw us to Himself. Are we willing to let go of stereotypes? Are we willing to let the box we’ve put God in fall away, so that we can see Him, know Him, serve Him, love Him, and be instruments of His peace in this world that so desperately needs to experience His kindness and His love?

What have I to offer
To heaven’s King
                                                    I will bring my life, my love, my all…                                                   (Chris Tomlin, Adore)

My life, my love, my all. May this be the gift we offer to Jesus as we celebrate Him this season.

–Luanne 

Luanne wrote:

His Shalom–His answer for all that is wrong in the world, all that creates chaos, all that is broken, was embodied in this tiny homeless baby who had been laid in a livestock feed trough…”

I took the liberty of highlighting Luanne’s use of the word “all” above, because it so very important in our attempts to understand what the Shalom–the peace–of Jesus is all about. If Shalom is setting things right and bringing wholeness and restoration to ALL that is wrong and broken (and it is that…), then peace is only ever possible if ALL are included to the same degree. Where any are excluded, or where there is the absence of chaos but only through the means of hierarchy, there is not Shalom. Because in those instances, things are only really “right” and “whole” for some. The Prince of Peace came to rewrite our definition of peace. It was never meant to be exclusive.

The Shalom that was ushered in with Jesus’ incarnation “set right” all previous exclusion and rejection. From the day of His birth through His very last breath, we see this play out in extraordinary ways…

Luanne wrote about the shepherds–how they were viewed in society, and how their testimony was null in the eyes of the people of that day. She also wrote about the women–the first to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection–and how their testimony was also worth nothing in the courts of that time. I can’t help but think of the servants who were the only ones to see Jesus turn water to wine during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2), and the Samaritan woman (that’s two strikes against her according to the culture of that day) who experienced the Shalom of Jesus and went on to tell her whole village–and many believed in Jesus based upon her testimony. These are only a few examples of Jesus bringing restoration to all… Inclusion where exclusion and hierarchy had previously reigned. Acceptance where there had been only rejection. Healing and freedom where there had been brokenness and shame. He came to set it all right…

Do you know what is so mind blowing about all of this? All of these stories made it into our scriptures. They were written down by men who, according to the accepted practices of their time, could have completely dismissed their words. And what would we have if they had?

The two most important events in the life of Jesus–the incarnation and the resurrection–were reported by outsiders whose testimonies were invalid in all of the courts of that day. These stories that we celebrate on our two most important Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, were first told by those who were most dismissable. Our all-powerful, Holy God chose those who were least likely to be believed, those most on the outside, and entrusted these precious ones with the biggest headlines that would ever be written. Because this powerful, holy God is perfect love and His disposition is kindness and He is a God who sees and sets right the wrongs of this life. This God saw to it that if the “haves” wanted to know the story, they would have to be quiet and listen to the “have nots”. And we see this invisible God in the person of Jesus who came, as Luanne said, as a “tiny, homeless baby”–so that His life could deliver true Shalom to ALL…

When Shalom comes, this peace that includes and restores all things, it can feel like rejection and loss to those who have become accustomed to being the “elite”. We see this play out during the life of Jesus, too. How, as He elevated those who had lived under the feet of others–under the weight of power structures and systems that oppressed them– those who had the power and stood on top were very unwilling to be brought down to the foundation of equality Jesus was rebuilding (the foundation was first set in Eden–broken humanity destroyed it). His ways felt like loss to those who were on top. And it was loss–loss of all that was keeping them from the wholeness that is only possible Jesus’ way.

I am so grateful that the story of Jesus was written through the testimony of the leasts, the lasts, the lowly, the rejected. I am so grateful there were some who did believe their testimony–because what if they hadn’t? I believe this love story of God coming for all of us would have still been told, because God is, well God and all… But I love that it was told by those who had probably never before been entrusted with news that carried any real weight–yet, here they were, carrying the weight of Glory within their testimonies… 

It can be tempting to see this as a reminder that even when we feel less-than and unqualified to share our testimonies, we should share them anyway–and, maybe there are times we need to remember exactly that… But I would challenge all of us to take a good look at ourselves and our “place” in the world before we land in that place. Who around us is stereotyped? Whose testimony is deemed invalid in our time? Who are those seen as unclean in our culture? If the answer to those questions is not us, then we need to understand that we’re the ones who’ve become accustomed to being the “elite”. And we’re invited into the Shalom of Jesus. We are invited to come down to the level ground of Jesus to listen to those who He’s brought up to that same foundation. The foundation of the Prince of Peace–real, lasting, all-inclusive peace. Where all is made right, and all are made whole. Where all are invited to call Jesus our Life, our Lord, our King. On this foundation, the Kingdom of heaven comes. And the ways of this Kingdom are love and Shalom.

Are we willing to give our lives, our love, our all to the King of this Kingdom?

–Laura

shepherd pic

Stories: Jonathan & Jeaneece

As I reflect on the story we heard on Sunday morning, my eyes fill with salty pools again. We were given a gift that few are courageous enough to give another: raw, undiluted vulnerability. Truth, spilled from weary, hurting hearts. I am so grateful for the words that Jonathan and Jeaneece shared with us, and it is a terrifying honor to be sharing and expanding upon some of those words here.

The Schmidts married young. Their journey together began in New Mexico. While working at a youth camp in the mountains, Jonathan heard a call into ministry. He heard these words: “I want you to be my watchtower.”

Jonathan had never aspired to be a pastor. In fact, he shared that, “A pastor is the one thing I never wanted to be.” Much like Jonathan, Jeaneece had never seen herself as a pastor’s wife. Yet, here they were. Jonathan said that this call started a season of  bargaining with God, and laying fleeces out–fleeces that God responded to as He, over and over again, provided a way.

They remained in New Mexico, serving at a church there, for three years. During these years, Jonathan recalls rubbing elbows with the higher-ups and not liking what he saw. He said that his thoughts at that time were basically, “If this is what ministry is, I’m out of here.” 

A friend told Jonathan, “Run. If you’re called, you won’t be able to hide.”   

And so they left. They ran. All the way to Bellingham, Washington. They both worked outside of the church world. But they didn’t stay away from church. They began to serve with the youth at their new church–strictly on a volunteer, unpaid basis though–at their request. They loved their students deeply and, eventually, Jonathan found himself on staff again. Turns out his friend had been correct–he couldn’t hide.

At some point along the way, they had two daughters and then two sons. They landed back in New Mexico–Albuquerque this time–for a season, and eventually they ended up back in Washington. As they described the many transitions and changes, Jeaneece said, “All of a sudden…life happened.” 

Jonathan and Jeaneece spent 32 years in ministry. And then, in December 2014, they realized they’d had enough. They needed to be done. They had nothing left. The environment they were in was toxic. That transitional time in their lives is what eventually brought them to Casper.

What had they had enough of? What did they need to be done with? In a word: church. Their experiences in ministry left them empty and needing to be done. Jonathan, in describing some of these experiences, said, “I didn’t think I signed up for what I saw.”

What was it that he saw? When Pastor John asked him how he saw the church, he said, “They seemed to be about building their little kingdoms.” He shared that his relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. He had witnessed power plays, been stabbed in the back by his head pastor, and had seen leaders conspiring against pastors. He saw “self-righteous, religious, church garbage”, and he witnessed fighting over music, buildings, and what would be taught. At a particularly raw moment, he spoke these words…

“I trust no one… I’m having to re-learn how to trust God.”

Of the current season they are in, Jonathan said, “We don’t know what this story looks like tomorrow…” 

Yeah. I feel that, too. You probably do as well… We don’t know what the story will look like tomorrow. A different line in our series introduction video stood out to me this week:

“Is the Writer trustworthy to get the middle right? To surprise us with His love one more time?”

It seems to me that this line captures where Jonathan and Jeaneece are right now. They left the ministry after 32 years, but in many ways, where they are now is in the middle. Not the end. Not by any means. And they know that…  They articulated that they know God’s not done yet–but they don’t know what it looks like.

They have been hurt deeply by the church… and yet they are still a part of ours. What a gift we have been given in who they are and the story they carry into our midst. The reminder they give us to be on our guard against the temptation to build our own comfortable kingdom–not simply because that isn’t the Kingdom Jesus came to bring, but because when we forget why we exist, we hurt people.

Jonathan said to the faces that dotted the sanctuary, “Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

His words gutted me.

He was thanking us for allowing them to come in as far as they could bear, without asking them to dive in further. For letting them be exactly where they are on their journey without making them feel like that wasn’t enough. But the way he put the words together…

Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

Thank you for giving us the space to exist…”

I wanted to respond, “Thank you for gracing our edges with your existence, for choosing to exist among us.”

How did we get where we are, Church? As the big “C” church of Jesus? That someone’s experience could be so damaging, so painful, that us simply giving them space to exist on the edges would be such a gift? Why are we so bad at simply letting one another exist? Exactly as we are, where we are? How did we get so far from loving God and loving others, from carrying Jesus’ kingdom of love to those around us?

A pastor and his wife who deeply love Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to extend that love to so many who were desperate for what they had, left the ministry after 32 painstaking years–depleted, disillusioned, with nothing left to give. It breaks my heart. And as I sat, shaken to my core by their honesty and their pain, the Spirit implored me to search my own heart. To see where I’ve fallen into the “business” of church life and forgotten to make space for those around me to exist in whatever way they need to. I am grateful for the reminder of how ugly we, as human beings, can be. How selfish and cruel we can be, the ways we tear each other down in pursuit of our own comfort and greatness.

How Jonathan and Jeaneece got here, to Casper, to our church, is a heartbreaking story. But I am so, so glad they are here. Whether they realize it or not, they are still ministering to those around them. They carry the Jesus that they love faithfully, even especially in their brokenness. They’re not afraid to ask questions, to wrestle with God about the hard. And their realness invites us to be real, too. They say they are “making it” right now by taking it day by day, trusting that God has enough for that day. Jeaneece said, “Day by day, you have to make the choice to reach for joy. It’s a deliberate search for things to be thankful for, an intentionality of looking for the good.” 

They are in process, as we all are. They’re in the murky middle, wondering, hoping and somehow knowing that the Writer is trustworthy to get it right–to surprise them with His love one more time…

Let’s give each other space to exist friends, to be the Church that loves like Jesus and lives for His Kingdom-not our own.

–Laura

I wish you all could know Jonathan and Jeaneece. They are beautiful, tender-hearted people. Their vulnerability as they shared drew us in. There were a lot of tears, I could hear gentle weeping all around me, and I cried too. Theirs is a story of deep love, and of deep grief. There is much we can learn from them.

Jonathan shared with us that when he met the real Jesus as a teenager,  he was overwhelmed by an intense love like he’d never known. Jonathan has experienced the deep love of Jesus, and he loves Jesus deeply–which is why his grief is so deep. Any of us who have been loved deeply, and love deeply in return are grief-stricken when the object of our love is misrepresented and abused. Jonathan shared with us that being a loyal defender has been hard-wired into him since he was a child. What he has experienced on church staffs cut him to the core, because Jesus-the one who loves him deeply, and the one he loves in return-has been misrepresented. Jonathan’s heart is to be lovingly and deeply loyal to Jesus and His mission.

Laura wrote above that both Jonathan’s grandfather and his dad were pastors. Jonathan didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus, and certainly didn’t want to be a pastor. He said that what he had observed led him to believe that “it” doesn’t work.  So, when he was overwhelmed by the love of Jesus, it was a huge moment in his life.

Jeaneece had never aspired to be a pastor’s wife. It’s a hard thing–both to be in ministry (which she was), and to be married to a “professional” minister.

I am the daughter of a pastor–and the wife of a pastor. I did not want to marry anyone in the ministry either. Unlike Jonathan’s experience, my dad modeled Jesus in a beautiful way. My dad is a gentle, wise, shepherd who drinks from a deep fountain and ministers from that place. I did not realize how rare that was until I left home. But even gentle, loving pastors can come under attack from factions in their church, so after pastoring the same church from the time I was six years old until I was pregnant with my third child at the age of thirty, my dad retired early because he didn’t want the church he loved and had poured his life into to split. It was ugly, hateful, satanic. The man who started the ugly went on to be a denominational leader in my home state, and in that state the denomination has been in lawsuits and power plays that have been very public. It makes my heart sick.

Even when the “hard” isn’t that public, life for ministers and their families is challenging.

There is tremendous pressure placed upon pastors and their families. We live in a fishbowl, and many people live as if they have permission to make commentary on how they think we’re doing. The children of the pastor have expectations placed upon them to be perfect, and if they’re not, it’s a reflection on their parent. I hated running into an adult from church when I was with my friends as a teenager. I would be introduced as their pastor’s daughter, and all of a sudden there was an expectation to be a certain way. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that my teen years were wrought with self-destruction and pain–however, I never wanted that to reflect on my dad.

The pressure put on pastor’s children leads either to “performing” as perfect models, or running the other direction and giving up completely. One day, just a couple of years ago, a nationwide Christian radio station was discussing pastor’s kids on the air. The phone calls “joking” or complaining about the kids almost made me want scream. I wrote a letter to the station and expressed how deeply hurtful that was.

I wanted my own children to have permission to cultivate and navigate their own relationships with Jesus. I didn’t want them pretending in order to “look the part”. That didn’t stop the outside pressure, but I have defended them more than once by pointing out that doctors’ kids still get sick, dentists’ kids still get cavities, and neither the kid or their parents are judged for it. What a gift it would be to let pastors’ kids be kids without judgment or unrealistic expectations. I’m in my mid-fifties and still recovering from being a PK.

As for being a pastor’s wife–my friends know never to introduce me that way to anyone. As soon as that “title” is shared, authentic conversation goes out the window. It’s a weird and uncomfortable thing. I want to be introduced as “my friend, Luanne.”

At church, when I am introduced as the pastor’s wife, I ask people not to hold that against me and to let go of any pre-conceived notions that they might have, because I’m not any of those things. I would rather get to know real people and let people get to know the real me–then if they learn that I’m the pastor’s wife, it’s not so weird because they already know that I’m normal. And one other thing–I don’t serve in my church because I’m the pastor’s wife. I serve because I love Jesus, and like any other lay person, I am using my gifts in the body because I love Him.

Unrealistic expectations and pressures put on pastors and their families was one of the things that was difficult for Jonathan and Jeaneece. Expectations that pastors/leaders are somehow supposed to have all the gifts, do all the things, and if they are not perfect or doing it well, the large target on their back is shot at ferociously.

On the flip side of the issue of unrealistic expectations, there are pastors who use their role to exert power and influence, and who sometimes abuse that power and harm many in the process.

Jonathan, with incredible passion and pain shared about his experiences on church staffs by stating: “My relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. This is supposed to be the place where we come share that love–not about stupid arguments. I didn’t get into this to run a church. I didn’t want it.” During the second service he said  he had seen too much “self-righteous, religious garbage–fighting over ridiculous things and the church huddled together to try to make ourselves more comfortable while there are thousands on the outside in need of what we have.”

His righteous indignation is spot on. He loves Jesus deeply. He made attempts to redirect elders and pastors who were sidetracked. He was told to “shut up”. The stress caused symptoms that mimicked heart attacks. Jeaneece, finally said to him, “Jonathan, we’ve had enough. We need to be done.” and then she looked at us and stated, “It was toxic.”

It was toxic. The church was toxic.

Jeaneece, in talking about that season,  reminded us of the time when the prophet Elijah ran and hid.

He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, “Get up and eat.”  Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep. Soon the Lord’s angel woke him again and said, “Get up and eat, or else you’ll get too tired to travel.”  So Elijah sat up and ate and drank. The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai,  the mountain of God,  and he spent the night there in a cave.  (1 Kings 19:4-9)

The Lord sent an angel to minister to Elijah. He was gentle with Elijah. He met Elijah in his despair. And a few verses later the Lord spoke to Elijah in a still small voice, refreshed Elijah, encouraged Elijah, and gently called him back.

Elijah wasn’t the only person in scripture who wanted to die in the middle of a ministry career. The Apostle Paul did too.  In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  (1:8)

Paul had mean, religious people stirring up trouble everywhere he went in his ministry.  Jesus did too–mean religious people who had an agenda, were willing to buddy up to the Roman government to get their way, were willing to lie and listen to false testimony (read about the night time, unlawful “trial” of Jesus), in order to kill him and retain their power.

And dear ones, it is still happening today. Like Jonathan and Jeaneece, it grieves me deeply.

Religion makes people mean. The Holy Spirit transforms people into the likeness of Jesus.

Religion is issues focused. Jesus is people focused.

Religion follows agendas. The Holy Spirit leads lovers of Jesus to follow His ways.

Religion has no heart. Being a new creation in Christ means that the heart of Jesus is in us–the heart that beats with the intent that all people experience His love through our love.

Speaking in generalities, the corporate church is not introducing the real Jesus to the world. We are loud about political parties. We are loud about concrete commandments being posted in public spaces. We are loud about who is in and who is out.  We are loud as we shame people who have made decisions we disagree with. We are loud, and we are mean.

Inside our walls we argue about music styles, carpet colors, who gets to use which tables, ridiculous temporal things, while-as Jonathan noted, thousands of people are desperate for what we have.

We are toxic.

It hurts my heart to write those words. Over the centuries, we have lost our way. We are having affairs with many things, while forgetting that we are the bride of Jesus.

The Lord is faithful in every generation to have prophetic voices that call us back to single-hearted devotion to Him. Jonathan and Jeaneece have that voice. It’s been costly. The religious resist the prophets, and the prophets pay a high price.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lamented over the hypocrisy of  the religious. He finished his lament with these words:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.

Will we listen to the voices that He is sending us in this generation? Will we let go of religion, of agendas, of issues? Our real mission is clear. Jesus made it clear.  Love God. Love people. Model His life. Proclaim good news to the poor. Proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. Set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Go everywhere and teach people to love God and love people–do this, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In doing this, God’s Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And if you are a prophet who’s had enough,  Jesus says to you:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message.

Thank you Jonathan and Jeaneece. God will not waste your pain.

–Luanne

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Dear Church–Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart], and the God [who is the source] of peace and well-being will be with you.  (Phil. 4:8-9 Amplified)

As I typed out the scripture above, I could feel within myself a deep longing to do better about living with the mindset that Paul is encouraging in those verses, and a deep desire to see the followers of Christ, the Church,  live like that. Our actions flow from our minds.  Taking our thoughts captive, renewing our minds, having the mind of Christ–these are all concepts that we are encouraged to put into practice, and we have the Holy Spirit living in us who truly does give us the power (the energy) that we need to live godly lives. But man–the mind is a battlefield!

In preparing for his sermon, Pastor John did a Google search and typed in the words: “Why are Christians so…”  The responses that come up are: mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…, yet Jesus said that his followers will be known by our love. What has happened? How did we get so off track-and what can we do to get back?

I think it’s super important that we each pay close attention to the voices that we are allowing to “disciple” us. To be discipled means to be taught. To be a disciple of someone means that you learn from them, that you model what they do. I’m afraid that in this culture of constant chatter, constant noise, constant opinions, choosing sides, etc….we are quickly digressing.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to be discipled by him when he writes: The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things [in daily life], and he tells us that the result will be the peace of God in our lives. When the peace of God rules in our lives, our mindset–our heartset becomes about the flourishing of others, and, as Jesus said in his sermon on the mount–the peacemakers will be blessed by being called–or recognized as children of God. (Mt. 5:9)

Pastor John pointed out something that has frustrated me for quite some time which I believe has led to our meanness, our misery, our judgmental attitudes and our intolerance. Somehow in our individualistic western mindset we have made Christianity about “self” rather than about building God’s kingdom. We’ve made personal salvation the main point–when personal salvation, or entering into a relationship with Jesus is the beginning point–the new birth that leads to a new way of life that is completely others focused. It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…and we’re the plan.

Yes–it all starts at the cross. Without the cross, we have no hope for a relationship with God. But there is a cross, and it not only reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is also a reminder of how we are to live in complete and total surrender to God.

Pastor John gave us three very practical ways to look at the cross:

  1. As a plus sign. In mathematical equations, the plus sign indicates things that are added. There is tremendous personal benefit in coming into a relationship with Jesus–no doubt about that. Jesus adds incomparably more to our lives than I think we can even fully recognize.  But the plus sign also serves as a reminder that we are to be about the business of bringing God’s peace, love, and message of His grace to those around us. His heart is for everyone to know about the life that He offers through Christ.
  2. As a minus sign.  Picture the crossbar as a minus sign (a takeaway), and the vertical  bar as the letter “I”.  If I take myself and my will out of the equation so that God’s will can be done in me and through me, I am much more inclined to be the light of the world and salt of the earth that Jesus said I would be. When I’m not worried about or focused on myself, I am much more inclined to lift Him up, and He said that when we lift Him up, He will draw all people to Himself.
  3. Picture the vertical bar as the symbol that God has raised us up to a place we could never be on our own, and the crossbar as the reminder to reach out beyond ourselves to others.

Pastor John shared with us the results of a study put out by the Center for Attitudinal Healing that stated all conflict begins with a mindset of “lack”; focusing on what we don’t have and allowing our thoughts to be obsessed over how to get what we don’t have. As I began to ponder that thought I saw a great deal of truth in it. Becoming aware can help a great deal. When we begin to feel angsty inside, rather than lashing out and reacting, can we begin to sit in that angst and get to the bottom of what it is that we think we lack?  Is it God’s love? Is it honor? Is it respect? Is it material goods? Is it a certain talent?  Is it political power and persuasion? Is it fairness? Is it inner peace? Is it not getting our way? What is it?  If we don’t figure this out, it will lead us to anger, bitterness, and conflict. Every war ever fought–whether a personal internal war, a domestic war, a cultural war, or war on a global scale is about someone trying to gain what they “lack”–whether lands, or power, or the obliteration or oppression of an entire people group so that the “conqueror” can have dominion and supremacy, or (on a much smaller scale) control over the remote control, a mindset of lack has led to it. Think about it…

This same Center for Attitudinal Healing said that the solution to conflict-the pathway to peace- is to learn to love others well, and to receive the love that is extended to you.   The Center for Attitudinal Healing is not a Christian Center–they are secular, yet their approach sounds just like Jesus.

Does it work? This week I read an article on nbcnews.com about a former white supremacist, former grand dragon in the KKK, former Nazi,  who was part of the Unite the Right Charlottesville march last year, but whose life has changed completely because of a woman of color who offered kindness to him as he was struggling from heat exhaustion at that rally. Her kindness began to change the narrative in his head, which led to him begin having conversations with an African-American neighbor, who just so happened to be a pastor–resulting in this former white supremacist coming into a relationship with Christ in an African American church. He was baptized in that church, he belongs to that church, and is now telling those who he used to recruit to get out of the business of hate–that it will ruin their lives. (Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville  nbcnews.com). Love works–just like Jesus said that it would.

So, what does all of this have to do with this week’s verses? Everything.

In every situation, are we (am I/are you)  willing to have the mind of Christ? Are we willing to renew our minds and think with the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh? Are we willing to pause, get our thoughts under control, examine what’s going on under the surface, surrender our wills to God’s greater will and purpose, and “be the change that we want to see in the world”? Are we willing to keep our minds focused on the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy?  Are we willing to put into practice the things that Paul is encouraging the Church to put into practice in his letter? If so, the peace–the shalom of God– will be with us and will naturally spill out to all of those around us-leading to their flourishing in all ways, and we will be known as Jesus’ followers by our love. His way is always the better way, and to know His way means to know Him- our true, noble, righteous, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy Savior.

–Luanne

We’ve said it over and over again since we began this series in Philippians: It is all about Jesus. And this week is no exception. Paul is writing to the church and exhorting them (and us) to think rightly so that God and His peace would be with them. Our passage, these two short verses, do not directly reference Jesus. But marinating in the words reveals what we have seen repeatedly in this letter–it all revolves around Jesus. Let’s look at the words Paul uses to tell the Church what to think on:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…”

True. Honorable. Worthy of respect. Right. Confirmed by God’s word. Pure. Wholesome. Lovely. Peace-bringing. Admirable. Of good repute. Excellent. Worthy of praise.

What do these words describe? I could use the word honorable to describe my husband. I might say the fresh snow is pure white, or use it in reference to the water in a mountain lake. I could call food or old T.V. shows wholesome. There are MANY things I call lovely–skyscapes, butterflies, flowers, birds, my dear friend who wrote the first half of this post… peace is used frequently and in a variety of contexts. We can call hard work admirable, and use the descriptor of good repute in reference to candidates we are backing. Excellent is used often in the world of academia as well as in athletics. Worthy of praise is less often used than the others, but we could find areas where it, too, could apply.

But can you think of one thing that all of these words together describe? One thing that fully embodies the meanings of each adjective?

I can. In fact, I can think of two…

Jesus.

And us, the Church, when we’re living in the fullness of His life in us.

These words do describe the things I mentioned above. But none of those things, on their own, fully embody the meaning of the word used to describe them. At least not when held up to the standard of Jesus himself.

So, without overreaching or hypothesizing too much, I think it’s fairly safe to say that when Paul told the Church to “think on these things”, he was encouraging them to keep their minds trained on the life, ways, and person of Jesus. Pastor John mentioned that Paul didn’t go into the meanings of the words he chose. He didn’t explain what he meant.  He wrote the words and moved on. Maybe that’s because if we know the real Jesus, we already have the most complete picture of what these words mean. Maybe his readers knew that. Because he goes on to say  “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” (vs. 9a, NLT) What did the church at Philippi (and what do we…) learn, receive from, hear and see Paul doing? Ultimately, what Paul modeled was what being a disciple looks and sounds like. He taught and gave what he learned and received from the person and ways of Jesus. The words he wrote in his letters are sometimes difficult to understand and to swallow, and we read things in them that appear to contradict each other–he was human, after all, and his work is most likely not without its flaws. He knew this about himself–he understood his own humanity, his own brokenness. And so he did two distinct things: He pointed his readers always to Jesus himself as the authority and standard. And–and it’s a big and–he had the audacity to imply that we, the Church, could actually live up to the standards of Christ, by the power of the Spirit at work within us. NOT by striving or trying harder to achieve all that we aren’t. But by accessing the power (energy) of the Spirit.

I also believe that “these things” include one another, when we’re operating out of the mind of Christ. We don’t think of one another this way if we’re operating out of our self-focused mindsets of lack. But if we understand the ways of the Kingdom, the life and character of Jesus, his way of abundant love that is available to us, then what we see when we look at each other is the Imago Dei. The image of God in each one, our shared humanity, made beautiful in the Agape love of Christ.

Luanne wrote above, “It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…”

None of us could refute that statement. It truly is impossible to come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self if we actually read these accounts of his life. Nothing that Jesus said, did, or taught is responsible for the self-absorbed, I want more, individualistic “faith” many of us find ourselves trapped in today. In fact, it is precisely because we have ignored (if we’ve read them at all) the words and life of Jesus that we find the Church in the condition she is in today… full of people the world around us identify as “mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…”

We wonder why our lives are filled with conflict and chaos and we long for the peace we hear preached from the pulpit, the peace that Paul writes about at the end of our passage. He tells us to think on “these things”, to put into practice what we’ve heard and seen. And, “Then the God of peace will be with you.” (vs. 9b, NLT)

Remember when I said that the whole passage points us to Jesus? These final words are no different. If we read these verses and don’t pause to ponder their deeper meaning, we can read these two verses through an “If this, then that” filter. It sounds like cause and effect. Do this, think on these things, act this way–and then you’ll have the peace of God with you. I believe it’s a bit more nuanced than that…

In Ephesians, Paul writes these words:

For he himself is our peace… (Eph. 2:14a)

This verse has been a favorite of mine for many years because it always reminds me that peace isn’t a thing, or even a state of being. Peace is a person–the person of Jesus. He, Jesus, is our peace. He doesn’t give us peace. He IS peace. If we have Him (and He is accessible to any and all who desire to know Him–this has nothing to do with church and everything to do with relationship), then we have peace. Period.

So what does this verse mean then? And what about all the times we feel like peace is beyond our reach, even though we know Jesus?

I think, like many things we write about, this has a lot to do with choice. I can have a refrigerator full of food, but if I never open the door and take out food to eat, I’m going to feel hungry despite the fullness that is available. In regard to peace though, the study that John presented to us, that Luanne referred to, better shows us why we often find ourselves peace-less.

It is all about the mindset we choose. Do we choose lack? Or love? Is there never enough? Or is there abundance? Jesus, if we know Him, is always with us. His life lives in us. We always have Him–and He IS our peace. But the thing about the life of Jesus within us is that it’s like a faucet. The supply of water is no less present in a faucet that is turned off versus one that is on. But the water only flows when the faucet is open. And do you know the quickest way to turn off the water of Jesus’ life within you? Get focused on yourself. Because self-focused living is completely contrary to Kingdom living. It is impossible to experience the peace, the Shalom, the setting-all-things-right life of Jesus while focused on self. When the secular study declared that giving and receiving love is the pathway to peace, they hit on the central principle of the Kingdom, the only standard that mattered to Jesus and His ministry because everything else flows from it: Love God (which is impossible without learning to receive the love He has for you); Love your neighbor (Everyone. ALL people, everywhere–including yourself)Giving and receiving love is the opposite of living a life focused on self. And it is the only way to access the peace of Jesus that is always living within us. The well of peace does not run dry because it’s full of the eternal, unending, forever-flowing living water that is Jesus himself.

I don’t mean to diminish or minimize the letter to the Philippians by repeatedly stating that it’s all about Jesus. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus is everywhere, if we’ll only look. And He is the authority, the rock, the foundation, that the Bible and every other created thing is built upon. Seeing how every word Paul wrote is made complete in the person of Jesus expands my heart and my mind, as well as my view of scripture–because I’m finding Him there. I hope it does the same for you, as we continue to dive into the depths together.

This week, think on “these things”: Jesus—in all of His beautifully simple complexity, and those all around you who bear His image and inhale and exhale His Life. As you do, love will replace the mindset of lack, and Peace will overflow…

–Laura

Image result for giving and receiving love

Dear Church #3: Philippians 1:19-30

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Phil. 1:27a)

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:10, Message)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

 

Luanne left us with some questions to ponder last week:

“Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all?” 

She also explained to us what “agape” love looks like–and that God loves every single human being with that kind of love. And she challenged us to do the same. To love unconditionally regardless of whether or not we agree with positions, orientations, political leanings, ideology, theology, or anything else that would drive us apart rather than together.

And this week, Pastor John took it one step further…

Are we willing to not only love all others, but to live out the mission of Christ to the point that we would die on behalf of them, the way that He gave His life for us?

There are some new questions rolling around in my head this week…

What are you living for?

What are you willing to die for?

What do you really believe?

Where does your citizenship lie?

Are you willing to suffer and to consider suffering a gift?

And a repeat from last week: Who are you offending?

Philippians 1:21 is a verse many of us are familiar with. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In communities of faith, we hear it, say it, sing it–but do we live it? Do we even understand what it means? Or is it one of those verses we throw around without pausing to consider the implications it holds for our day-to-day lives? 

Pastor John broke it down for us on Sunday. The words in the verse are fairly straightforward, with the exception of one. That Paul chose to use the word “Christos“, translated “Christ” in English, is what makes this particular verse so important. The word carries within it Jesus’ identity as Messiah, deliverer, freedom-giver. John said that it refers to the purpose and mission of Jesus, with the idea of modeling what Jesus is all about. And what is His mission? As we heard on Sunday, the mission of God, carried out through the person of Jesus, is to set the captives free. ALL the captives. “To live is Christ” is to live as He lived. To embody His mission. It is living in such a way that we leverage all that we are on behalf of all others. It is to die to ourselves and to our inclinations toward comfort, ease, and fluffy faith. It is to identify with our Savior, who so identifies with His people that, when they met on the road to Damascus, He asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” We are invited to take all that Jesus did (and does) for us… and do the same for others.

The invitation is costly. It is hard. It stands in opposition to every self-preserving and self-promoting notion that drives every one of us. But according to Paul, the invitation to suffer is a gift.

 

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

The word “granted” in the Greek is charizomai , which is defined this way:

“to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify, to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to pardon, to give graciously, give freely, bestow”

The root word of charizomai is charis, which is most often translated “grace”. I love that. Jesus has graced us, gifted us with the opportunity to believe in him. We learned on Sunday that this is not say-the-sinner’s-prayer and stamp your heavenly passport belief. In this passage of scripture, when Paul writes about being “convinced” and “believing”, it goes way beyond head-and even heart-knowledge. It is a belief that fully trusts, that stakes everything on that belief, and that takes steps to act on it. When Jesus invites us to believe in Him, this is what we are invited to. Not a systematic theology of rules that keep our behavior in check. Rather, a belief that burns like fire within us and moves us out toward the margins in the footsteps of the One who couldn’t stay away from the margins and the marginalized He found there.

I think in our western understanding of Christianity, we readily accept the believing but take a hard pass on the suffering. But if we really understood what true belief entails, we would find that believing and suffering are branches of the same vine. In fact, the kind of belief I described above will almost certainly lead us into suffering. Into persecution, even. It definitely won’t keep us “safe”. But Paul calls it a gift, a grace, to have the opportunity to believe in and suffer for the One who gave everything for us. Pastor John said on Sunday that most followers of Jesus would agree that the cross is at the center of our faith. But many would say that is because it’s where we find forgiveness and salvation, where we come to the end of ourselves and believe in Jesus as our Savior. John didn’t disagree that the cross is at the center of our faith, but he asserted that it’s not an end, but a beginning. A way of life. The place where belief and suffering come together to lead us into new life in Christ–a life that we get to give on behalf of others.

Paul names this invitation a gift. Grace. Why? Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

The Message words verse 10 this way:

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 

Jesus says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we’re insulted because of Him. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are committed to God, and that the persecution drives us deeper into God’s Kingdom.

The gift is blessing, presence, the very kingdom of heaven. The word for “blessed” in this verse is also defined as “fortunate” and “happy”. I think it’s important that we understand the meaning of a few other words in this passage, too.

What does it mean to be persecuted, really? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean…

Stu Garrard, author of Words From the Hill (a fantastic book that takes a fresh look at the Beatitudes), writes in the book about a conversation he had with Jeremy Courtney, the CEO of Preemptive Love:

“I asked him [Jeremy] about persecution and what it looks like to him. [He said:]

There’s a risk with this conversation. It’s like walking on a razor’s edge. There’s a way to talk about persecution that sort of gives us permission to become irreverent and jerks when we don’t get our own way. Not winsome or loving or creative or culturally engaged, and if we get pushed back we say, “See, they are persecuting us! Look at them–look at what they’ve done wrong.” When the truth is that we’re not loving and we’re not reaching out.”

We live in a time where real persecution does exist all over the world. Many people experience it for a variety of reasons. Followers of Jesus are still dying as martyrs in some countries. But sometimes, we do exactly what Jeremy articulated. We cry persecution and point fingers at those who won’t submit to our demands or bend to our agenda or who simply don’t let us have our way. That’s not persecution.

The word translated “persecute” is the Greek word dioko. It means:

to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away; to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing, to run after; to pursue (in a hostile manner) in any way whatever to harass

This definition is fairly broad and applicable to a lot of situations, except for the why that Jesus outlined.

He says in these two verses, “because of righteousness” and “because of Me”. The word used for righteousness here is dikaiosyne. The root of this word means “equity”. So, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is not about our good behavior or our personal holiness being challenged by the “bad” behavior of others, but rather, it’s about making things right for all people, everywhere. It’s about leveraging our lives the way that Jesus did. And then He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…” The “because of Me” is extremely important. It goes back to what Luanne wrote about last week. Why do people hate us? Is it because we are embodying the mission of Jesus and working on behalf of freedom and equity for all people? If so, Jesus says we are blessed, and the kingdom is ours. But if we are hated because we look too little like Jesus, we can’t say that we are suffering persecution. Being told to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is not the same as being persecuted. Giving others whose lifestyle we disagree with basic human rights does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” off of our currency, as some have suggested we do, does not equal persecution. Separating religion and government (church & state) does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Instituting laws that protect and make provision for vulnerable “others” is not persecution of our “values”. And Starbucks not writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups is absolutely NOT persecution. This is a short list, but I’ll stop here. I think you get my point.

Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted because of Him. As we understand more and more about who He is–His ways, His kingdom, and His love for ALL people–and as we identify with Him and take on His mission of setting captives free, persecution will happen. Because we’ll be living out the radical ways of Jesus. But NOT because our happy, religious, self-righteous, rule-following bubbles are being popped.

Stu Garrard wrote these words:

“As we see the world differently, we can resist the urge to go take sides, even though that’s the path of least resistance. When we find ourselves living as peacemakers in the world, this kind of living so easily leads to persecution because we all know the way the world works–it wants us to pick a side and it’s not going to go down so well when we don’t pick a side and we want to see everyone flourish. And so then we find ourselves not being picked for a side, because fear runs the show, and saying and showing with our lives that love actually casts out fear–well, that’s pretty bad for business. So persecution for us might not look like it does for others in far-off lands. It might just be that we are excluded from the dominant story of the dominant culture… Holy troublemakers are people who are compelled to live a life worthy of a pushback–a life worthy of persecution… They are often misfits and misunderstood. Holy troublemakers understand that where there’s persecution, there is suffering. And when we suffer for the cause of righteousness and justice, we connect with the suffering of the greatest misfit of all time.”

So. To live is Christ… To truly live is to be connected to the heart of Jesus, to His mission of setting captives free. To leverage our lives on behalf of others because we know that the invitation to belief and suffering is a gift of grace. To endure persecution because we look and act too much like the One we follow. To truly live is to die to ourselves and to awaken to new life that freely gives itself away so others can live. And we’re meant to live this way together. 

Dear Church, can you imagine how the world would change if we actually lived this way? It makes my heart pound to think about it. The invitation has been given to each of us. What is our response?

–Laura

To live is Christ…

He stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  (Luke 4:17-20)

Welcome to the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth. Welcome to the new way of doing life.

After Jesus spoke these words, the listeners in the synagogue were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips, yet a few short verses later the crowd was furious with Jesus, so furious that they drove him out of town and wanted to throw him down a cliff. Why? Because he reminded the Israelites in the synagogue that in Elijah’s time, during severe famine, God did not send Elijah to help an Israelite–God sent Elijah to help a widow in Zarephath, and God did not heal Hebrew lepers through Elisha, but Naaman, the Syrian, was healed.

His listeners could not believe that God might include the “outsiders” in His kingdom, and it made them murderously furious. There are things going on this very day that are contrary to the principles of the Kingdom of God. There are hot-button issues that are creating fury. Where do you land on these issues? What are you wrestling with?

To live is Christ…

Laura reminded us above that Paul’s choosing to use the word “Christ” indicates His purpose, His mission, His ways.  Dear Church–His mission is what we are to be about. Jesus’ heart for everyone put him at odds with those who wanted him to fit in their box. And on the day He was crucified, He still had a heart of compassion for those who misunderstood–Father forgive them…(Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul, Peter, John and others model for us that when they were persecuted because of the mission of Jesus, they did not respond in hateful ways hollering about their rights. They continued to talk about Jesus. They shared with their hostile listeners how to come into a relationship with Him. Some did. Others had them beaten, thrown into prison, and killed.

Dear Church–whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ph 1:27)

“conduct yourselves” literally means in the Greek  be a citizen of…

So here is the question: Which kingdom do we exalt most by the way we live?  Do we understand what it means to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Dear Church– it doesn’t look like the systems of the world. We have got to know this. We have got to know this. We have got to know this.

Paul encourages the church to:

Stand firm in one spirit

To contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel

To stand courageously, not being frightened by those who oppose us. (1:27)

What is he saying?  He is saying–Dear Church, be unified around the message and mission of Christ; fight together as one for those around you to believe, to have faith, to be convinced that God loves them; let them know that the crucifixion of Jesus is the turning point, the veil has been torn, there is now no separation between God and humankind, and invite them into a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit, full of God’s love and divine purpose which is available for everyone. Teach them to love, to minister to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, and to live and work for the flourishing of everyone. Yes, everyone.

To do this, we must each know the real Jesus. Laura wrote about this above and I want to reiterate it; to believe in Jesus is not about having the right knowledge about Him. It’s not being able to recite the apostle’s creed or any other list. Belief/faith is conviction that leads to action.

Brennan Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” writes…”that Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s ‘faith’ means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs…And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their ‘lack of faith,’ he meant their lack of trust and courage…Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the Good News which he lived and preached.”

Do we know Jesus well enough to be courageous for Him and His ways? His all inclusive, loving ways? Do we care about people more than we care about policies? Are we willing to be courageous, to be different, to be opposed?

I find it sobering to think of the visual that the Philippian church must have had when they read what Paul was saying to them about contending together for Jesus.

Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman arena in the midst of it. The Roman arena was the pinnacle of Roman culture in colonized cities. The power of Rome was displayed in the arenas. Messages from Caesar were delivered in the arenas. Jesus’ followers were put to death in the arenas.

Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Philippi  to fight back against Rome. He tells them to contend together so that others will see Jesus and give their lives to Him. He tells them to be courageous as they are opposed. And, as Laura wrote above, Paul reminds them that they have been graced with the opportunity to not only believe in Christ, but to suffer for Him. The Message translation writes it like this: There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. (v. 29)

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a selfless life. There is cost involved. Pastor John pointed out that I cannot live for Jesus and for myself at the same time. I cannot live for others and for myself at the same time.

He pointed out that our “arena” is where we live, wrestle, fall, fail, get back up, grow, die…  My arena is my life, your arena is your life. Our “contending as one” arena is the Church. How are we living in our arenas?  Are we letting the culture of Christ shape our arenas? Are the spectators, the citizens of this world, seeing Jesus?

Dear Church–Jesus told us that the world will hate us for doing life His way. The world will hate us for righteousness sake. The world will hate for for being rightly related with God and leveraging our lives to be rightly related with others. Are we willing to be misunderstood for the sake of His kingdom? Are we willing to be persecuted for His name’s sake?  If so, Jesus tells us that we will be blessed.

Sacrifice, suffering, joy, it all goes together. And as we lay our lives down and lift the life of Jesus up, we become the answer to His prayer…may Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…and we give all we are to move toward the glorious day when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ… (Rev. 11:15)

Dear Church–conduct yourselves (be a citizen) worthy of the gospel of Christ…

To live is Christ…

–Luanne

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a few days. Maybe for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been distracted by many things, and I can easily focus on the distractions–the areas in my life where I am discontent, the long winter season in Wyoming and how I long for spring, the distance that I live from my children and grandchild, relationships that seem difficult in this season, and a wall (self-constructed) between God and me, so Jonathan’s sermon was just what my thirsty soul needed.

On Sunday, Jonathan Schmidt shared his own journey with us beginning with his call into the ministry 32 years ago, through his seasons of running and God’s continuing pursuit, and then the season of pastoring a church and losing sight of his First Love while maintaining what he referred to as Church Incorporated. He was not blaming the church; he recognized that he had become entrenched in the “doing”. He had let other things come in and take his focus and had forgotten the call to love God first.

He reminded us that we can be in the church and lose our way, because we forget to love God first. He reminded us that it is easy to walk away from the simplicity of “Jesus loves me” and get lost in Bible Study, ministry activities, maintaining programs, and doing.

Bible study, ministry activities and the like are good things, but they are no substitute for living from the place of knowing that God loves us first, and that because of His great love we can love Him in return with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we can love our neighbors as ourselves. He reminded us that all of the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, are fulfilled by loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as ourselves. ALL of the Old Testament, ALL of the message of Christ fulfilled in those two things. (1st John 4:19, Mt 22:37-40, Luke 10:30)

Why do we complicate it so much when it’s really this simple:

  1. God loves us. He proved it in Christ. Believe it, embrace it, let the Holy Spirit have access to your life.
  2. When we know that God loves us, we live from a new place, a new identity, and we can love ourselves in a healthy way because we are loved.
  3. That love spills over to those around us, they take notice, they desire to know this love, we teach them what we have learned from Christ (making disciples Mt. 28:19-20), and they come into relationship with Christ continuing the beautiful cycle.

Simple–and it all starts with love.

A number of years ago I was driving across rural Kansas trying to find something to listen to on the radio (that’s all I had access to back in the day). I came upon a sermon that sounded intriguing , and heard the pastor say that it’s not enough for Jesus to be Lord and Savior–He must also be our treasure–and then I lost the station. Some miles later I was still trying to find a radio station and I came upon the same sermon at the same moment, heard the same line and then lost the station.

All of a sudden I wasn’t interested in finding a radio station. I knew that God was speaking to me, and I asked Him to teach me what it means for Jesus to truly be my treasure.

What I treasure I love, I think about, I tend to, I enjoy.

Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. (Mt. 6:21)  Did my relationship with Jesus indicate that he is my treasure? That I love him, live for him, and enjoy him above all else? Hmmm. I had some work to do. I had been in love with Jesus before, and I recognized that I needed to return to Him again as my first love. (Rev 2:4). It took a brief moment of confession and expressing my desire to love Him deeply asking Him to meet me where I was. He did–the funk lifted and I experienced beautiful closeness with Him again.

Fast forward to my recent funk. I had begun the current “funk-lifting” process on Saturday morning, and Jonathan’s sermon led me to the next step, so confession and expression is what I did again after his message.

Jonathan shared with us that he had a mentor who asked him: Do you think people really want to spend eternity with Jesus?  We’ll be with Him for eternity–if we don’t want to be with Him now, why would we want to be with Him for eternity?  Hmmm.

That question reminded me of something I heard in another sermon a few years ago:

“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—
is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the
friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and
all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties
you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no
human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with
heaven, if Christ were not there? ” (John Piper)

That’s quite a question and quickly reveals where our hearts and priorities are.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts. John 17:3 tells us that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  John 13:35 tells us that by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 We cannot love one another if we don’t know God’s love for us and respond to His love by loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength  It feels pretty important, pretty foundational that we know those things.

There is a tremendous difference between the type of relationship described above and being religious. Jonathan’s Church Incorporated dilemma which led him to leave his church and begin the journey back to his First Love was the result of religious activity.

Religion kills. There is no joy, no life in religious activities. Religion leaves folks burned out, frustrated, and angry at the world and all the people who don’t see things the way they do.  Love, on the other hand, gives life, embraces beauty, draws people in, stays with people in their mess, learns from others, and chooses relationship.

Religion turns people into projects and Christianity into a list of dos and don’ts. Love sees the value, the image of God, in all people, and sees Christianity as being in a real and vibrant relationship with Jesus. A relationship of fellowship, enjoyment, trust, honesty, authenticity, transparency, transformation, wrestling–no rules, no boxes to check off, just Someone to love and be loved by. Someone to get to know on a deep and intimate level.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of this. When he was religious he had position, authority, power. He was important in the eyes of the religious community. He was outspoken, and he was mean–so much so that he was totally sold out to destroying the lives of Jesus’ followers. (His story is found in the book of Acts).

Then he met Jesus. He was humbled, blinded for a few days, (a physical manifestation of the spiritual condition he had been in) and changed forever. Changed to the degree that this man of position, authority, power, “the good life”, tells us in 2nd Corinthians 11  that he has been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…

Yet, in spite of all of those things in Chapter 4 tells us his perspective on the suffering (which we are promised as Christ followers) when he writes: our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

And in Philippians 3: 7-9 He tells us why: But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…

Paul knew that Jesus was his treasure. He knew what Jesus meant to Him, who Jesus was to Him, and He wanted everyone else to know Jesus too.  Everything in his life, after his encounter with Jesus, flowed from the treasure of Paul’s heart, and the world was changed as a result.

Where do you find yourself today? Do you know that God loves you? It all starts there. Do you respond to His love with love? Have you wandered a bit from the simplicity of the relationship and gotten distracted by many things? Are you in a funk?

The solution? Sit in His love, let it wash over you. Talk to Him about where you’ve been and respond to His love with love for Him. You will be changed and the world will be changed. The things that matter to His heart will matter to yours, and the world will know we are His followers by our love.

–Luanne

Jonathan talked about our being “living sacrifices” in his message. He then asked us if we were trying to crawl off the altar. I immediately thought about a verse that I have on a notecard in my bathroom. I read it every day and pray it regularly. It is Psalm 5:3. I have the Message version on my notecard. It reads this way:

 “Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.”

I put this verse up about a year ago. It’s not one I could have prayed honestly many years ago. Luanne mentioned above what Jonathan said so beautifully in his message. He said that we have to learn to “sit in the love of God”. I love this thought for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to take the liberty to expand it a bit…

See, I think we continue to crawl off of the altar—we move away from offering ourselves daily as living sacrifices—until we’ve braved sitting in the fire of God’s love. We climb up on the altar and with faltering voices say, “He-he-here, I am God… waiting for you…”  But as He approaches with His white-hot love, the heat of His presence causes us to slink off the altar and crawl to a… safer distance. Until we brave the heat for the first time. It’s not until we let the fire of His love engulf us that we realize-like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did in the furnace-that we won’t be consumed. That Jesus meets us within the fire and it’s while we sit there with Him that we become unbound. Once we experience Him in this way, our fear of the fire is replaced by the assurance of His goodness and our hearts begin to burn white-hot in response to His blazing love for us. Only then does the altar become a place we long to go and meet with Him, offer our lives to Him, daily.

I remember when I began to get comfortable with laying every piece of my life on the altar, offering all of me as a living sacrifice…  It was during one of the most painful seasons of my life. The trouble (that Jonathan reminded us is a guarantee, part of the deal when we give our lives to following Jesus…) surrounded me. My heart was broken for so many different reasons—rejection, betrayal, problems in my marriage, family tensions, financial tension, a ridiculous amount of fear; among other things… I have never felt more alone, more unsure of who I was. I didn’t understand God’s love for me. The shame of my past was suffocating me. It was during that season that I resolved to wait. To lay my life out before God and wait for Him to come, fire and all. I was afraid. But the brokenness and the loneliness outweighed the fear. And I asked Him to come to me. To show me He loved me. To make me believe it. I told Him I would do whatever He asked—I just wanted to be free. To know who He was, really, and who I was in Him…

I didn’t have some grand vision… but I felt Him come close. I physically sensed His presence. He engineered playlists and laid open the pages of my bible as He directed me to things He wanted me to know. I felt the heat of His love surround me… and it was tempting to retreat. I couldn’t control this reckless love that ran toward me. And I knew that if I stayed there, if the fire fully surrounded me, everything would change. Everything needed to change… But I knew that change meant surrender. It meant pain. And while the storms of my heart couldn’t get much worse, I wasn’t sure I was ready for what His fire may burn away in my life. I was afraid. But I was desperate. And so I stayed put. I listened. And for a season, He called me His beautiful beloved. I doubted what I heard the first time, but it kept happening and I knew what I heard. I began to believe it…

As I sat in the fire of His love, he refined my heart. He rebuilt me. He spoke sweetly, intimately to me. I remember feeling so exposed, completely vulnerable-and completely, totally, known and loved. It was disarming, disorienting and freeing.

I couldn’t have prayed Psalm 5:3 until I experienced the love of Jesus this way. I wish I could say that every day when I see that verse on my cupboard door, I am willing and ready to pray it with all of my heart. But that wouldn’t be true. See, the reason that verse is taped up in my bathroom where I’ll see it every day is because I need the reminder. Even though I’ve experienced the white-hot love of Jesus that changed me-that changes everything-it’s still not natural to offer up every bit of me, every single day, and release my hold on control over myself and my life. Because I know what it can mean… When you offer all that you are and invite the fire of God to descend, you give up every right to yourself. It’s a daily dying. And it hurts…

Because sometimes, when He meets me on the altar of daily sacrifice, He tells me to do things I don’t want to do…

Stay… Go… Love her… Embrace him… Give… Speak… Start… Stop… Forgive… Let go…

He always invites me to remember that this world is not my home. That in this world I will have trouble-but I can take heart because He has overcome the world. He gives me an opportunity to say, every day, “Not my will, but yours be done…”, and I find that I rarely would choose on my own to do His will, His way.

Jonathan called himself a “reluctant prophet”, always running from the thing God was calling him to do. I think we all can be reluctant prophets. We can all at least identify with the “reluctant” part. And often, in our reluctance, we build barriers. Barriers between us and the altar we’re invited to offer ourselves on daily. Barriers that keep us from loving God with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and from loving our neighbors with that same love. We build these barriers because we want to stay safe from the trouble Jesus told us we would have in this world. Because the trouble hurts. And we don’t like pain. We do all kinds of things to try to escape it. But we can’t. Ann Voskamp writes, in her book Be the Gift,

“There isn’t a barrier in the world that can block out pain. There isn’t a wall you can build that protects you from pain. Addiction, escapism, materialism, anger, indifference—none of these can stop pain—and each one creates a pain all its own. There is no way to avoid pain. There is no way to avoid brokenness. There is absolutely no way but a broken way. Barriers that falsely advertise self-protection are guaranteed ways of self-imprisonment. Barriers that supposedly will protect your heart so it won’t break are guaranteed to break your heart anyway. Yet being brave enough to lay your heart out there to be broken, to be rejected in a thousand little ways, this may hurt like a kind of hell—but it will be holy. The only way in the whole universe to find connection… is to let your heart be broken.”

Jesus modeled this for us. He laid out His heart-knowing we would break it-that we would break Him-but it was the only way for us to be connected to Him. And He invites us to lay our hearts out, too. To follow His lead. He will never break our hearts or reject us—but He will call us to die to ourselves for the sake of others who will. And this is something we are incapable of doing if we haven’t first sat in the fire of His love. But if we know His wild, relentless, crazy love for us, if we’ve let Him break open the seed of our hearts so that we can love Him in return, it gets easier to embrace the trouble, the pain of this life. Because when we sit in His love, He becomes our treasure, as Luanne so beautifully wrote about above. And if He’s our treasure, we realize that yes, we do want to spend eternity with this Jesus that has loved us back to life and that, truly, He is what makes eternity appealing to our hearts at all. And we can exclaim with the psalmist, A single day in your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else!” (Psalm 84:10a, NLT)

–Laura

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Contingency Plan

On Sunday in the absence of our pastor, one of our elders brought the message. Jim spoke about the importance of a contingency plan and used an illustration from his work to highlight his point. Jim is the manager of the air traffic control tower in our city, and one Friday evening he received a call, which is unusual. He was told that the tower had lost its radar, phone capabilities, computer screens– basically everything that was needed in order to carry out their duties and keep passengers and crews safe. Jim asked them if they had carried out the contingency plan, which they had. He asked if they needed anything from him. They did not. They were able to function using the contingency plan, and calling Jim was part of that plan.

I looked up the definition of “contingency plan”–  according to dictionary.com this is what one is:

1. A course of action to be followed if a preferred plan fails or an existing situation changes.
2.  A plan or procedure that will take effect if an emergency occurs; emergency plan

In Jim’s example, I can’t imagine the panic that would have set in had the air traffic control tower not had a contingency plan, but because of the plan, when the unexpected happened, they were prepared, knew what to do, and were able to continue carrying out their mission of keeping planes and people safely where they needed to be.

A contingency plan is in place before the unexpected happens. Spiritually speaking, it’s good for us to have a contingency plan. Life on this fallen planet is full of the unexpected. When the unexpected happens, do you have a plan in place?

Jim’s spiritual contingency plan consisted of four parts:

1. Keep your eyes on Jesus: Jim read to us the account of the incarcerated John the Baptist sending his followers to find out from Jesus if Jesus was truly the Messiah. John was in a crisis. He was confused. He was hurting. God wasn’t doing what he had expected, and he had some questions. (Notice that he took his questions to Jesus—always a good idea in a tough season.) Jesus didn’t get angry with John or his disciples—nor did he explain John’s situation or tell him what the outcome would be—instead, he told John’s disciples: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus was reminding them of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold about the Messiah, and that even though John’s personal situation was unexpected, He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah and His Kingdom work—God’s plan— was being done.

Ravi Zacharias says “In its essence, faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power, so that even when His power does not serve my end, my confidence in Him remains because of who He is.”

Does our contingency plan include choosing to hang on to Jesus, to trust Him, to have unwavering faith, even when the bottom drops out?

2. Pray for each other.  Jim illustrated this point by reading us the account of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel with 450 prophets of Baal (fabulous account found in 1st Kings 18).  King Ahab was a terrible king and Elijah wanted him to know the one true God  so 3 1/2 years earlier he had prayed for no rain to fall. This encounter on Mount Carmel was the tipping point in that 3 1/2 year drought coming to an end.

In the New Testament, in order to remind us of the power of prayer,  James writes this about Elijah: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. (James 5:16-18 NLT)

Blaise Pascal wrote one of my favorite quotes about prayer when he stated that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” 

 Things happen when we pray.

And things happen when we don’t.

God told Ezekiel “I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30)  

Our intercession for each other and for the world is huge.

I read the following in my devotion this morning:

“Prayer (and fasting depending on the translation) is part of Jesus’ casting out of unclean spirits (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21). Why prayer? These verses about prayer and fasting are not about our holiness such that if we are worthy we can wield them to use God’s power…. No, prayer is conversation with God. Prayer helps us to attune our hearts toward God as well. It is in the midst of this form of communion with God that we hear from God and also make intercessions for the world around us. We pray for strength, insight, forgiveness, healing. We pray for the transformation of situations and for the needs and welfare of others. We pray for darkness to be lifted and for people to become free.  I absolutely believe in Holy Spirit driven calls to action. I also believe in the powerful activity of prayer that moves in ways that I don’t always see… If prayer is the method that Jesus uses to cast out the darkest forces that invade and misdirect our physical world, let us also choose prayer as a form of resistance to the powers and principalities of this world.”  Justin Coleman

Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray…if we want darkness conquered we must be people of prayer. Paul tells us that our battles are not against flesh and blood, he tells us to put on the armor of God, and he tells us when we have done that to PRAY.  (Eph. 6)  He tells us in 1st Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Jesus reminds us  “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,'”  (Mt 21:13a). 

 We are the temple of God (1st Corinthians 3:16) and we are living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 5:8).  WE are His houseWould our houses, our temples be recognized as houses of prayer? Is prayer part of our plan?

3. Continue in community.  Jim used the story of Lydia in the book of Acts (chapter 16)  to highlight this part of the contingency plan. He pointed out that Paul normally went to the synagogue when he entered a new city; however, on this sabbath he went to the river to pray.  While there, he visited with a group of women, and encountered Lydia, who was a worshiper of God but did not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus. She responded to Paul’s message and was baptized. So many things about this encounter are beautiful–Paul went where the Holy Spirit led him. On this occasion the Holy Spirit led him to a group of women.  Women were little more than property to the men of that day.  But to God, each woman was His image bearer. Jesus highly esteemed women when he walked the earth, and Paul was following in the footsteps of his Savior. The result of this encounter with Lydia is that not only did she come into a relationship with Christ, she came into the kingdom of his people–community. The church in Philippi was birthed out of this encounter.

Paul was already part of the kingdom of God, and he leveraged his life to bring others in. He noticed the marginalized. This is our call. All of us. Who are the marginalized in our day, and what is Christ’s desire for them? We do not have His permission to despise anyone.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17), and we–his people– are the ones who carry this message to those who don’t yet know Him.

One caution–when we go through hard times our tendency is to want to withdraw from community, to isolate. We are not meant to go through life alone.  Seek a community that allows you be exactly who you are, exactly where you are–one that doesn’t require pretending. Seek a community that will love you into the arms of Jesus.

Is your contingency plan to stay connected to kingdom people, and bring others in?

4. Love each other.  Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this, instead, he gives us godly ways to handle conflict (Mt. 5:23).

Paul encourages us to speak the truth in love. (Eph 5:14)   James reminds us that we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2)  Peter tells us “You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart.” (1st Peter 1:22).

Does your plan include choosing to love?

Jim’s air traffic controllers had a contingency plan in place. When the bottom fell out and their normal system failed they followed the contingency plan.

My hope is that each piece of our spiritual contingency plan is part of our daily lives–focusing on Jesus, prayer, healthy spiritual community, and loving well–so that it is as natural to us as breathing. Then, when life falls apart, systems fail, and the bottom drops out-we hold on to Jesus, to His people and weather the storm with eyes fixed on Him.

–Luanne

As I think back over the four parts of the contingency plan that Jim laid out for us, I believe that the first and the last are paramount for us to really grab hold of. Keep our eyes on Jesus and love each other. When I put these two side by side, it reminds me of some words that Jesus spoke when He was asked which commandment is the most important. He answered:

“…You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NLT)

During Jesus’ ministry, He never wavered about what had to come first. He called out sin, of course, and He spoke and taught about many things. But He maintained that our primary focus as His followers was to 1. Love God, and 2. Love (all) people. This is what we’re called to. It’s always been the way to bring His Kingdom on earth. I know that Jim’s first point was to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to love Him–but I think they are one and the same. If we fix our eyes on Him, if we see Him for who He really is, we will love Him.

So the two most important commandments, according to Jesus, are the bookends to Jim’s contingency plan. I’m going to focus only on these two points here, because I believe that loving God and loving each other are what spur us on to pray for each other and to continue in community. They are part of the natural outflow of prioritizing the other two, and cannot exist without them.

Okay… Love God. Love people. 

So simple… and so hard.

One of the reasons this simple command is so hard has to do with something Jim brought up on Sunday. He used the term “expectation bias“, and I believe it can get in the way of fulfilling the call we were given (Sidenote: It is a call and it applies to all of us…) to love both God and people.

So, what is it? What is expectation bias?

Expectation is defined as: A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; an attitude of expectancy or hope. 

Bias is: A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned. 

Expectation bias is explained a lot of different ways by a lot of people who are much smarter than me. One article I read defined it this way:

Having a strong belief or mindset towards a particular outcome that influences perceptions of one’s own, or others’, behavior.

If we look at the three different definitions above, it’s easy to see that expectation bias can be a slippery slope. None of it is grounded in truth. Our expectations may be grounded in truth at first; they may spring up from the hope that we have, hope that comes from our knowledge of God and His love for us as well as from Scripture. But it doesn’t take much for our expectations to move away from truth and toward a focus on self. And when expectation is paired with bias, which is often preconceived or unreasoned, based on incomplete stories or isolated experiences, it’s a dangerous combination.

So let’s look at Jim’s first point: Keep your eyes on Jesus. How could expectation bias complicate this simple concept? In the story Jim referenced about John the Baptist, John asked this question of Jesus:

 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NLT)

John (and many others over the course of Jesus’ ministry) suffered from expectation bias. They expected a conquering King, not a suffering Savior. Nothing Jesus did or said lined up with their expectations of Him, even though-as Luanne wrote about above-He was fulfilling every prophecy that had been written about the coming Messiah. John’s expectations began with the prophecies from Scripture that he had learned about since childhood. His expectations started out grounded in truth. But as he grew, bits of his own ideas, his own bias, infiltrated what began as pure, hopeful expectation, and as the story unfolded and he found himself in very unfavorable circumstances, his expectation bias kept him from seeing Jesus. He had, at some point, lost sight of the real Jesus, the prophecy-fulfilling Jesus he’d grown up with, and he’d fixed his eyes on a counterfeit. He had fixed his eyes on a self-serving image of the Messiah somewhere along the journey. And we are in constant danger of doing the same thing. 

If we are going to fulfill the first and greatest commandment, we have to have our eyes fixed on the real Jesus-not the self-made version that suits us best. We can’t say we love Him if we’re not looking at the real thing. The real Jesus is found in Scripture. The real Jesus can be seen in the faces around us. The real Jesus is revealed to us in everyday moments through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The real Jesus won’t always keep us from or get us out of crises–but He is always by our side in the midst of our suffering. We have to fix our eyes on that Jesus. If we can do that, if we can look up into the face of love Himself-all filters and expectations aside-we will love Him with all of ourselves. We just will.

When it comes to Jim’s last point, Love each other, we see expectation bias affect things a little differently. Luanne wrote this above:

“Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this…”

When it comes to people, our expectations can reach all-out crazy levels. And we have so many different biases, we are probably unaware of most them. All of our expectations, in regard to other people, are rooted in selfishness. 

Um… all of them? I think so. Yes. I am sitting here trying to think of one single expectation I have of another human being that isn’t somehow linked back to me and my well-being… and I can’t find one. If you disagree, feel free to comment–I would love to be wrong about this!! But I don’t think I am. I could write example after example and dig into the roots of all of them, but I won’t do that here. I would challenge you to think about it though, and to pray through what God might be saying to you on the subject.

I’ve been studying the life of Joseph the last few weeks. Not Mary’s Joseph. The Joseph who was daddy’s favorite-the one with the beautiful coat of many colors… the dreamer. That Joseph. He went through some stuff. We could definitely say that he experienced a crisis or two… His circumstances were beyond unfavorable from the time his brothers sold him into slavery until the dream God had given him was realized in his life a couple of decades later. He was betrayed by those closest to him. He was sold into slavery. Falsely accused. Imprisoned. Forgotten. Alone. And yet… We never see expectation bias play out in the way Joseph interacted with those around him. And years later, when his brothers repented of their sin against him, Joseph’s response was:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:20-21 NLT)

When we’ve been hurt, mistreated, let down-and we all have-our expectation bias will grow out of control if we let it. If we don’t keep our eyes on Jesus, attach our hearts to His word, His truth, our minds and hearts will run wild with fear, conspiracies, stories we’ve created out of our pain. Joseph could have found himself in the midst of a bitter, resentful web of expectation bias. But he didn’t. I think it might be because he had a contingency plan. He knew His God and he kept his eyes, his heart, his mind, his strength firmly fixed on Him. And because He did this, because He loved God most, he also loved others. And he made accommodation for their shortcomings. He chose to love anyway, to move toward people anyway, to draw those who had betrayed him back to himself anyway… I see such a picture of Jesus in Joseph’s story. It’s what Jesus does for us. It’s what he asks us to do for others. Ann Voskamp writes this in her book Be the Gift,

I am what I love and I will love you like Jesus, because of Jesus, through the strength of Jesus. I will love when I’m not loved back. I will love when I’m hurt and disappointed and betrayed and inconvenienced and rejected. I simply will love, no expectations, no conditions, no demands. Love is not always agreement with someone, but it is always sacrifice for someone.

Loving each other means laying aside our expectation bias and moving toward people anyway. We can only love each other if we fix our eyes on the Jesus who loves us perfectly first. And if we fix our eyes on Him and love others, we will pray for each other and we will continue in community.

Contingency plans exist for the crisis. They’re in place for when the unexpected happens. When we find ourselves in crisis, we have to hang onto, “…but God intended it all for good…” He knows what we’re going through. He has a plan. Do we?

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Re-prioritize

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  (Malachi 3:7-10)

On Sunday, we heard the final installment of our series, A Balanced Life. It was a summation of all that we’ve learned over these last six weeks as well as a charge to check our priorities. Pastor John put before us five ways we spend our money and the order in which we often do so. The list is: Spend. Pay debt. Pay taxes. Save. Give. This list may shuffle around a bit for each of us, but let’s assume the first and last priorities listed match for the majority of us. If that’s the case, our priorities indicate a “me first” mentality rather than a “God first” mentality.

Many of us live this way. The people God was speaking to in the Malachi passage above were living this way. They hoarded their best, took care of themselves, and gave God their leftovers.

We have a tendency to do the very same thing.

It may start small–the utility bills were high one month, and the paycheck was only big enough to cover them, the rent and a few groceries. So we didn’t give that month. We didn’t even save. We just did our best to take care of the most pressing needs. We had every intention of getting back on track the following month. But the next month presented with unexpected medical bills and the kids needed new shoes. So giving took a back seat once again. Before too long, budgeting for giving kind of fell off the spreadsheet… and even when income increased, our priorities didn’t change. We faintly  heard God calling us to come back, to return to His way, but we found ourselves saying, as God’s people said in the verses above, “How are we to return?”

This is a hypothetical story, but I have to own that my own life has mirrored the story more than once. The needs seem so pressing… What will happen if we don’t take care of those necessities first? God knows our struggle with trust and our inclination toward controlling our own lives. So He challenges us to take Him at His word… He says, “Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

Jesus issues a similar challenge hundreds of years later, saying, So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. (Matthew 6:31-33)

God is asking us to take Him at His word–to try it His way. And see what happens. The God of Creation–Maker of our every cell, Giver of our every breath–tells us to put Him to the test. His grace and patience with our selfish, stubborn, wandering hearts leaves me without words… Once again, as we’ve seen so many times, He gives us a choice. Try it His way–because He has so much more for each of us. Not only financially but in everything, His plan is to prosper us, to provide for us, to expand our territory… for His Kingdom’s sake. And this is where our hearts betray us… We say our hearts belong to God… We’ve “given our hearts to Jesus”. We sing the words “You have my heart” during worship services.

But does He, really? Does God have our hearts?

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Whatever has our hearts, we resource. We invest in and value those things”.

If we say that God has our hearts, but we don’t resource or invest in His Kingdom, we deceive ourselves.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25) 

If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between. It can’t be both. We serve, feed, and invest in one or the other. Period. This is about so much more than money-but it has to include our finances. If it were only about our time, our gifts, our talents, I would feel a little better about saying that my life evidences that God has my heart. For me, those things are easier, although, I still find myself utterly selfish much of the time. But when it comes to my finances? I fall well short of trusting God with my finances the way that He asks us to. This series has held up a mirror that has revealed, in my life, a need to re-prioritize.

I want to order my life the way that John laid out for us at the end of his message, the way our Savior modeled perfectly for us: Give. Save. Live. Jesus gave up Heaven and put on skin to come to us. And then He gave His life in order to save us. He saved us so that we could live-not only in eternity with Him someday, but here and now. And His desire for us in the here and now is to live His way. He wants to have our hearts so that we will willingly give all that we have and all that we are and leverage it all to bring His Kingdom to earth. So that in our giving of ourselves, souls will be saved and people will live. This is the way to honor God with our whole lives. May He find us faithful to live His way. May we not simply say that He has our hearts-may our lives bear fruit that proves it.

–Laura

Laura wrote above: If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between.

There is no in between.

We have the choice with every decision we make to choose the principles of the kingdom of heaven, or the principles of the kingdom of earth.  The principles of the kingdom of heaven will always be God first and others focused. The kingdom of earth will always be me first and self focused. God has clearly shown us in His word what “God first” living looks like, and also what “me first” living looks like.  “Me first” living always indicates a lack of trusting God to know what’s best.

“Me first” led to Eve’s taking Satan’s bait in the garden–When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen. 3:6) She wanted what looked good to her, and what she thought God was withholding from her.

“Me first” led to King David not going out to war in the season that kings went to war, and during that leisure time when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof, he used his power to take advantage of her which led to pregnancy, which led to the murder of her husband, and the child did not survive. (2 Sam. 11)  King David was thinking “me first” from the moment he chose not to go to war with his men, and all the way through that tragic story.

“Me first” was the attitude of “the rich fool” as he built bigger barns to store all the stuff that he planned to use for himself–and then he died. (Luke 12: 16-21).

“Me first” always has hard consequences, yet “me first” is the fallen condition of all of us. How do we fight it?

Author Daniel Hill, in his book White Awake writes of the one-degree rule. He says: In aviation there’s a principle called the one-degree rule: a tiny error in direction can make a major difference in the final destination of a flight…(Hill transitions the one-degree principle into the story of the prodigal son and says this about the older brother) though he dutifully followed the house rules, his obedience wasn’t flowing from a grateful heart. Instead he was driven by his own selfish agenda. Though this distinction was difficult to detect from the outside, it eventually showed itself in the cumulative toll that it took on his soul. By the time it bubbled to the surface, the elder brother was marked by a combination of anger, joylessness, judgement, and most sadly, an inability to internalize the love of the Father.”

Sarah Young’s January 30th entry in her beautiful devotional book Jesus Calling begins with this phrase: Worship Me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god.

I believe both Hill and Young give us clues as to how to fight “me first” mentality. In order to internalize the love of the Father, in order to worship Him only, in order to stay on track, there are things we must pay attention to.

First, we must know that we are loved by God. As we spend time with Him and experience His love, we grow to love Him in return–just like babies grow to love their parents in response to the love they receive. Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; (Luke 10:27).  Truly, we are not capable of loving God this way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God the way God desires to be loved–it’s a prayer He loves to answer! When we love Him this way, the temptation to worship lesser gods fades.

Loving God with our minds means that we allow Him to search us in order to help us recognize those one-degree thoughts and choices that lead us astray.

I’ve always found the apostle Paul’s wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4 interesting when he says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers….”  

I truly believe that part of living a balanced life is praying Psalm 139:23-24 every single day: Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.  Then we need to sit with Him and let Him bring things up so that we can deal with them–repent of them.

The word translated “repent” in our Bibles is the Greek word “metanoia”, which literally means “changed mind”. To live in harmony with God, we must allow our minds to be in tune with His heart, His ways.

Romans 12:2 makes this so clear: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  

Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  Again, interesting phrasing. When someone is taken captive, they are typically interrogated as the captor seeks to discover things about the enemy’s tactics.

I believe that even those of us who are saved can have our minds blinded when we choose to live in unbelief or in the kingdom of earth with its priorities. We must allow the Holy Spirit to show us those areas where we are going astray. When He brings things up, we must interrogate our thought process–what is it revealing about what we believe? Is it a “me first” thought that is revealing an area in our lives where we don’t trust God, or don’t want to live according to the principles of His kingdom? I would say that most often the answer to that question is “yes”. So then, we have a choice. Do we continue with our one-degree deviations which will get us to the place the Israelites were when they asked Malachi  “How are we to return?”, or do we repent–change our minds–renew our minds–and line up our minds, our lives- with the kingdom of heaven?

God asks for our entire lives–everything we are, everything we have. He tells us to seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness, and tells us that He will take care of all the rest.  Do we believe Him?  He told the Israelites through the prophet Malachi: Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

He wants to bless us, but He wants to bless us for the sake of His glory, His kingdom, and His renown. He wants us to come after Him because of love, not because we are trying to manipulate Him into giving us stuff–if we want Him for the blessings, that is still “me first”, but if we want Him because He is the love of our lives, it’s about Him.

Everything we have is from Him and for Him. That includes our finances. Do we live like that’s true?  Do we trust Him to be a God of His word? Do we trust Him to take care of us if we seek His kingdom first–if we give to Him first? Are we willing to test Him and see if the floodgates will open when we do life His way?  What if those floodgates of blessing aren’t material possessions at all, but they are lives of people saved for eternity because God’s people chose to live and give God’s way? What blessing could be better?

“Me first” or “God first”? The choice is ours.

–Luanne

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Overcoming

A number of years ago, my family and I were on a road trip which took us across the state of Kansas. I was driving, everyone else was sleeping, and I was trying to find something to listen to on the radio. As I was scanning through the stations, I caught part of a sermon in which the pastor made the statement: “Jesus is not only Lord and Savior, He is also Treasure.” I was intrigued and interested, and lost the station.  Thirty minutes or so later, I was still scanning through stations and came upon the same message at the same point: “Jesus is not only Lord and Savior, He is also Treasure.” Then I lost that station, but the Lord had my attention.  I began to ponder what it meant to have Jesus as my treasure.

In Revelation chapter 1, the apostle John heard a voice, and when he turned he saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man… Upon reading the passage, we learn that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the son of man is Jesus who has positioned himself among, in the midst of, the churches.

Jesus has a message of encouragement for each church, and also a challenge for each one to overcome.

These churches are known for their love, their perseverance in the midst of persecution, their faithful deeds,  their faithfulness in the midst of hardship, their faithfulness in the midst of poverty, their refusal to deny his name, yet each church also has areas of weakness. Ephesus has forsaken Jesus as their first love—their treasure. Smyrna is encouraged to remain faithful even though it’s going to get harder and the persecution is going to increase. Pergamum has allowed some false teaching to infiltrate their church, as has Thyatira. Sardis is asleep, they have let their guard down and stopped doing what they used to. Philadelphia has little strength, and Laodicea is lukewarm, apathetic.

John reminded us in his sermon that this message of the churches can be taken very personally. Each of us who call Jesus our Lord have a lamp to keep lit. Then together, with other lamps we make up our local churches and the capital “C” church that brings light to the darkness all over the world.

Jesus isn’t mad at us, and doesn’t point out these challenges in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. He is encouraging us to hold fast to Him, to love Him first, to let Him be the primary influence in our lives, to get our hearts and our thoughts in line with his heart and his thoughts, to remove influences, even pastoral influences that lead us astray, to test every teaching with His word, to renew our passion, to let go of apathy and live with purpose. And when we do this, the things that He promises to overcomers are beautiful.

John told us that the word “overcome” in this context is an ongoing action and has both athletic and military significance. In the athletic significance, it means to prepare yourself for the bigger challenge—train, and train, and train—engage in such a way as to get stronger.  I think we all recoginize that in the world of athletics, doing nothing makes us weaker and ill-prepared. So taking the personal responsibility as one person to be in the best shape we can be in through daily preparation and training is part of what “overcome” means.

In the military context it means rising up as a group and going after the common enemy. We work together as a team. We don’t face the enemy alone—we are after the enemy together—all of us together after the same enemy.

So as we each prepare ourselves individually to be in the best spiritual shape we can be in, we will collectively be prepared as the body of Christ to be the church that the gates of hell will not prevail against.

I think if we stop and ponder Jesus’ message to the churches, we’ll see things there for us to address, to recognize, to repent of.

Have we as individuals and as a body forsaken Jesus as our first love?  In this world of incredible uncertainty, are we choosing to be faithful to Him, place our hope in Him, even though the days ahead may be even more challenging than they are now? Do we live in media driven fear, or Jesus based hope?

Have we allowed false teaching to infiltrate our churches?  I think this is a big one for us to wrestle with and ask the Holy Spirit to help us see. One easy way to recognize false teaching is figuring out if the message we are hearing would be true in every country in the world. If it elevates any one country, one political party, one race, one ideology, get out your Bible and test to see if it’s true. The message of Jesus transcends country and culture, and it does not pit groups of people against one another. The message of Jesus values all people. Watchman Nee, a Chinese pastor was asked during the Chinese/Japanese war how he should pray. He responded by saying that he would pray in a way that if he were praying with a Japanese believer, they could both say “amen” at the end of the prayer. I am afraid that there is a lot of false teaching that we tolerate in our churches. Jesus is asking us to recognize it, remove it from our midst, and repent.

Are we asleep? Do we just go through the motions, attend church rather than being the church? Are we weak because we choose not to spend time with the Lord? Are we weak because we choose not to allow Him to use our gifts, to stretch us? Are we satisfied with second hand faith that is regurgitated through someone else’s walk with Christ?

Are we apathetic? Not hot, not cold…just nominal—not engaged in community, no passion for the Lord, no passion for His call, no desire to live out our purpose because it might interfere with our personal plans and goals?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus walks among us, among our churches. He is encouraging us as individuals and as church bodies to remove anything that doesn’t belong in our midst—to rid ourselves of influences that pull us away from Him. He gives us opportunity to repent, and promises us incredible things if we choose to do this His way. Jesus and his unadulterated message of love and salvation, his transformational power, and his mission to bring others into the Kingdom  is what church is about. I am the church, you are the church. My light joins with your light and together we push back the darkness. We live to please Him and Him alone. We adopt his heart for the world. We recognize the false teaching of our day by testing it against scripture, we choose to be more influenced by Jesus than by our news sources, our political affiliation, our social media accounts. And how can we do this authentically in a way that is not mere behavior modification (which won’t be lasting)? We ask the Holy Spirit to help us return to our first love, Jesus our savior, Jesus our Lord, Jesus our treasure. Then we discover that He truly is worth giving everything else up for. It’s an “all hands on deck” kind of life. Are you in?

–Luanne

Overcoming is the process of preparation for what’s next—which inevitably includes more overcoming. It’s a stretching that brings growth and change in our lives. With every challenge we overcome, we look a little more like our overcoming Savior who has overcome even death. Every time we overcome, more of His light shines through us and draws a desperate and hurting world one step closer to Jesus’ embrace. This is how we are the light of the world. By living life Jesus’ way-letting go of the rules and religious activity and coming into the presence of Jesus so that we’ll reflect His light, His heart to the world. But it only really works when we do it together. Luanne wrote:

“Each of us who call Jesus our Lord have a lamp to keep lit. Then together, with other lamps we make up our local churches and the capital “C” church that brings light to the darkness all over the world.”

One lamp will scatter the darkness. Darkness has to scatter in the presence of light. But it will only scatter the darkness that’s near it. When we put our lamps together with millions of other lamps around the world, though… we might just find that darkness would cease to exist altogether. I wholeheartedly believe that this has always been Jesus’ desire for His Church. The challenge is: Will we put our lamps together and advance our collective light against the very present darkness of our enemy?

Luanne wrote, “The message of Jesus transcends country and culture, and it does not pit groups of people against one another”. So why do we see, time and time again, people using the “message of Jesus” to do just that, pit us against one another?

John said he can tell what news source people tune into based on the way they talk. The same can be said about what denomination or branch of Christianity we associate with-if we don’t understand and practice Jesus’ way of community. We can find ourselves judging our brothers and sisters who worship differently than we do, making critical statements about other denominations, joking about the displays of faith that we don’t really understand or that make us uncomfortable. We don’t realize that we are biting the bait and ingesting the hook of a critical, proud spirit, and playing right into our enemy’s hands when we do this. We are willingly destroying our family members—and the saddest part may be that we often believe we are doing the right thing, and we begin to see our extended family as enemies. Luanne identified that part of overcoming looks like this:

“We don’t face the enemy alone—we are after the enemy together—all of us together after the same enemy.”

Ephesians 6:12 tells us that, “…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”

Our battles have never been against flesh and blood. But we have taken up weapons against one another instead of facing the real enemy together. What if we understood that the only way to truly overcome, to advance against our common enemy-our only real enemy-is to rise up together? What if we understood that victory never happens in isolation? What if our words didn’t identify us with a particular denomination, but rather with all of our brothers and sisters, all of us members of the big “C” church? That’s the kind of unity Jesus asked for in John 17:21: ”I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me”.

One of my new favorite authors, Carlos Rodriguez, says it this way:

“We need our Orthodox family. We need our brothers and sisters in the megachurches. We need the underground church in China as well as our Reformed relatives in America. We need one billion Catholics to join hands together with us in solidarity, in prayer, and in service…because I believe that not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together. To learn from each other. To grow with each other. And to stop calling each other the Antichrist.”

This would be a game-changer, friends. If we understood how to overcome as individuals by getting rid of the pollutants from within ourselves and from the outside so that Jesus is what fills us and pours out of us, and then came together as one army-prepared yet always in process-battling the same enemy, we would see the world change. I am certain of it. We have to stop seeing people as the enemy. So that we can take on the real enemy together. And in the process, I bet we would find that all of our different churches have more in common with one another than we think we do. And we would find that with Jesus in our midst, we can overcome our fears of the other, our preferences, our pride, our critical spirits—and actually come to love one another.

Once again, we are faced with a choice. Are we happy living apathetic, lukewarm, burnt out lives that are being influenced by false teaching? Or will we throw off all that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race marked out for us? Will we make a stand and set our course to follow Jesus wherever He leads, understanding that continually overcoming is part of the process that creates His likeness in us? And will we have the courage to do it together? To use the light of Him who connects us all to advance against our real enemy and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to our waiting world? I’m in. Are you?

–Laura

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Stories from Romania

This weekend’s message came in the form of beautiful testimonies from the recent Mission Trip to Romania. I was moved to tears many times as six of our own shared about their experiences. At times, I cried with them as they shed tears. At other points, my heart was deeply moved by the goodness of God toward each one. But what I came away with was not simply someone else’s story about a trip that’s done and over. I walked away with my heart burning within me, challenged in my own walk with Jesus as I pondered all that He had revealed to these six. I am so grateful for what they brought home to us. Here is a small sampling of what they shared…

Beau stated that, from the beginning, he felt compelled to step in fully. He said he wanted to let the people he served and interacted with know him and have a piece of his heart. He wanted it to hurt when he left to come home. He also said this:

“Once I committed to giving my whole heart, it was easy to lay it all out there.”

Levi also expressed that he had made a decision at the start to fully enter in with the people around him. It had a profound impact on him. Not only did he leave changed, but with confirmation of and passion for the calling God has laid on his life. He also came home feeling convicted and challenged about his role here at home. He expressed it this way:

“Why don’t I give what I gave here [in Romania] at home? To the youth here? I hold myself back here.”

John said that sometimes God takes us elsewhere to show us what He wants us to do here. Levi’s revelation is a beautiful example of the truth in this statement.

Mark shared about how they could see the progress that had been made by teams that had gone before them, that their work would build on what had been done by others and that in the future, others would continue the work they had done during their time in Romania. He expressed it this way:

“Amazing things happen when we all pull together. It doesn’t matter what portion we build.”

These statements that I have highlighted, they’re more than a good story from a great trip. They issue a challenge to the rest of us. A challenge to love fully, deeply–a challenge to love like Jesus.

There is nothing “easy” about “laying it all out there” in our day-to-day interactions. What is easy is withholding pieces of our hearts because we’re afraid of getting hurt. We don’t want to feel the pain of giving ourselves away only to experience rejection, disappointment or the ache of goodbye. Maybe it’s possible to enter in fully for ten days on a mission trip, but to come home and give ourselves away like that here? In the places God has called us to live? That’s hard. And I think it’s safe to say that most of us shy away from living that kind of love. But isn’t love like this exactly what we are called to live out?

 Love one another the way I [Jesus] loved you. This is the very best way to love. (John 15:12 Message)

 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. (Ephesians 5:2 NLT)

 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. (Romans 12:9-10 Message)

Love the way Jesus loved us… How does He love us? He gave his life for us. He comes to the weakest, the sickest, the unseen and gives saving grace to all who ask. Live a life filled with love, following His example. Hard. This requires commitment. A choice.

I am stirred by the way the Romans verse is paraphrased in the Message– Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it… This is what Beau & Levi articulated in what they shared. They chose to love from the center of themselves, to hold nothing back, to be authentically who they are and give themselves away. And they came home changed and challenged to do the same here in their everyday life. This doesn’t come naturally to us as adults. We are well practiced in and conditioned to withhold pieces of ourselves. To wear a mask. To only enter in so far… But Jesus’s way is all or nothing. Partial love, giving pieces of ourselves away, isn’t love at all. Love is only love when it’s all-in, unconditional, following-the-example-of-Jesus love. This is the only love that changes lives and builds bridges. Love that binds us together as “good friends who love deeply”, who don’t mind “playing second fiddle”, who can say as Mark did, “It doesn’t matter what portion we build”, because, “Amazing things happen when we all pull together”.

As I listened to all that was shared (and I have left out so much–you should really watch this week’s video so that you can fully experience their powerful testimonies!), I had to ask myself, do I love like this? Am I willing to fully enter in–when I know there will be pain involved? Sometimes I am… but I want to do this well all the time, wherever God places me, with all people. Every single person is created by God and in the image of God. Will I choose to see the image of God in all people? To see each and every face as one worthy of love? Will I choose to move toward people, to lay myself down for people? Do I understand that it really doesn’t matter what portion we build, as long as we’re loving the way Jesus calls us to love?

John asked us two questions at the end of the message:

  1. What is God showing you?
  2. What is God teaching you about yourself?

I have some soul-searching to do and some decisions to make. What about you? How would you answer these questions? We look forward to hearing your answers!

–Laura

*************************************************************************************NOTE: For those of you reading this who don’t have a connection to our church let me give you a brief back story on “the girls”. When these girls were babies, they were all chosen to be adopted by families in the USA. . Unfortunately, when Romania joined the European Union, all adoptions to the west were forbidden, so these girls were caught in a political mess. There were eight girls. Now there are six, and soon all of them will be in the states because of a new program and of a loophole that has been found. Some of the girls have gotten a special visa that allows them to live with a host family and do high school here. We tried to get one of the girls a year and a half ago, and other families in our church were willing as well,  but our state doesn’t accept that type of visa. The other loophole means that Romanian families living abroad can adopt Romanian children, so three of the girls have been adopted by Romanian families in the states.

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Like Laura, I came away from Sunday’s service with beautiful nuggets to meditate on; however, the theme that God highlighted in my heart, primarily during the first service, has to do with the girls–the orphans. Young ladies, 14-15 years old now, that we have known and ministered to for a lot of years.

Mark shared that during a conversation with one of the girls, he had the realization, due to bits and pieces from his own personal story, that talking to an orphan about why we make the decision not to adopt rings hollow. And then he said:

Because the whole gospel is about adoption.

The evening that the team returned from Romania, John and I were talking at home and he was catching me up on the girls. I used the word “orphan” during our conversation, and John said that he didn’t like to use that word.  I didn’t like it either when referring to girls that I know, girls who hold a special place in my heart. Why?

The word “orphan” is all of a sudden hitting me in a deep way. Knowing these girls–and they have been well loved and well cared for by Peter and Ana, the founders of the Romanian Evangelical Medical Mission (REMM)–doesn’t erase the fact that they are still orphans, and all of a sudden I am feeling the weight of what that means…not chosen, no real home, vulnerable, alone…

Orphans– real live people. Am I willing to face the reality of what it means to be an orphan, and then face myself and my choices in light of what it means?

The world is full of children who are orphans, and who need loving Christian homes to grow up in.  I do not take that lightly.  I think that’s an issue that we all need to wrestle with and pray about, and whether we are led to adopt or not, we can all play a part in getting children into homes with our prayers and our financial support. Yet my epiphany on Sunday was that every person on the face of the planet that doesn’t know Jesus is an orphan. All of a sudden the weight of that hit me.

 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:12  (Implying that those who don’t know Jesus are orphans.)

  “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”  John 14:18

 “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him.”  1st John 3:1

…”all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.”  Romans 8:14-17

So, here it is; not only does God tell us, his followers, to take care of the real live flesh and blood orphans…

“Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.”  Isaiah 1:17

“Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”  James 1:27

…I believe that He wants us to see the lost as spiritual orphans and care for them as well.  This is what it means to love like Christ. 

When Jesus looked at the lost, he felt deeply for them.

Matthew 9:36 tells us:  “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

I believe that he wants us to look at people this way as well.

So when I let both the beauty and the weight of this settle in on me, can I apply some of the things that the mission team said about ministering to orphans on their trip right here?

John said– “Always give your heart away. That’s what ministry is.” He encouraged us to give our life, our time, our fears, and our heart to God, so that we can be in a position to give those things to others–anywhere.

Beau said that leaving the girls on the last night was devastating because he knew that he may not see them again. He reminded us that the fear of pain, of saying good-bye, can cause us to hold back, but that he wanted it to hurt when he left so that he would know he came home different, he would know he hadn’t just shared knowledge, but had actually let the girls have a piece of his heart.  He chose to enter in, to speak life, to give his heart, and feel the pain of that. Could that be part of sharing in the sufferings of Christ?  Can I be willing to enter in with people even though I might get hurt in the process? Am I willing to give away pieces of my heart?

Levi chose not to hold back, to enter in fully, and was convicted about living that way “at home” as well–speaking life, speaking truth, speaking love, being fully engaged here. Am I willing to do that too?

Charity talked about how touched she was that the pastors and their wives knew the stories of the people that they ministered to, and she told of a woman who could no longer read her Bible, until the team provided a pair of reading glasses for her. Charity talked about the woman’s deep joy and gratitude, because that small gift changed her life.  Can we take enough time with people to learn their stories, and live knowing that even small gifts, small acts of kindness can make a huge difference?

Tina said about the dental work, that even though there was a language barrier, the language of touch, of care, is universal. We can speak that language no matter where we are.

And Mark said “Look for Jesus in every momentamazing things happen when the body of Christ pulls together.”

A mission trip is not about the doing, it’s about the being.

Following Christ is not about the doing, it’s about the being.

Are we willing to see those who are not yet family, who don’t know Jesus,  as orphans to be cared for, to be loved, to be spoken into with words of life, to be prayed for, to be worth giving pieces of our hearts to, to share our time with, to push past our fears for, so that we can introduce them to our Father? What are your thoughts?

-Luanne

 orphans